More than 400 people, maybe 500, packed the Unitarian Church last night for a memorial celebrating the life of Eileen Hansen, the activist, fighter, teacher, and mentor who touched the lives of thousands in this city.
The event was emotional, upbeat, funny – a fitting tribute to Eileen. I learned some things I didn’t know – that she tried to municipalize the private utility in Salt Lake City (they lost by one vote on the City Council), that she once moved to the upper Michigan Peninsula to drop out of the capitalist system and live off the land (which turned out to be a big mistake since neither she nor her then-partner, Nancy Andrews, had any idea how to farm), that she began her career in politics in second grade when she stopped a bully on the playground.
But mostly, we heard from people who described a life of love and impact, a person who constantly helped those in need. She was unusual for a political leader; As Mike Shriver, an old friend, noted, “she taught me you have an obligation to speak up for people who have no voice. And when they get that voice, you have an obligation to bring them to the table and get out of the way.”
Eileen was always full of energy, taking on dozens of projects, calling, cajoling, getting things done. “How to you write a eulogy for a perfectionist,” Sara Shortt, former director of the Housing Rights Committee and one of the many who learned from Hansen, asked. “You just can’t do her justice.”
Justice – social justice, economic justice – was her life’s motivation. “You modeled for us that you should never give up on the dream of a just world,” Shortt said. “You fought for social justice with kindness and respect.”
Tom Ammiano, the former Assembly member, remembered how the AIDS crisis “hit us like an asteroid.” Young men were dying every day. “And when you saw people in their last days, Eileen was always somehow there,” he said. “Eileen being a woman was transformational for a lot of gay men of that time.”
(He also, being Tom, said he used to tease her by asking if lesbians from Salt Lake City get to have a lot of wives. “And she would look at me and smile and say, ‘no, Tom.’”)
Sam Cobbs, the CEO of First Place for Youth, who worked with Hansen for years, told us that in her memory, “take a little time to be with a friend, when it’s inconvenient.” Because Eileen always did.
San Francisco will miss her.